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Doe v. Delta Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 21, 2015

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,


PAUL A. ENGELMAYER, District Judge.

Defendant Delta Airlines, Inc. ("Delta") has moved for discovery sanctions against plaintiff Jane Doe, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b)(2), based on Doe's violations of multiple court orders directing her to produce medical records and releases. On February 25, 2015, the Court granted Delta's motion for monetary sanctions, and directed Delta to submit a request identifying specific attorneys' fees and costs that it incurred in the course of attempting to obtain Doe's compliance with the Court's orders. See Doe v. Delta Airlines, Inc., No. 13 Civ. 6287 (PAE), 2015 WL 798031 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 25, 2015) (the "Sanctions Decision"). Before the Court now is Delta's application for $16, 905.38 in fees and costs.

Doe argues that the amount Delta seeks is excessive. For the reasons set forth below, Delta's counsel is awarded $16, 130 in attorneys' fees and $157.38 in costs from Doe, for a total award of $16, 287.38.

I. Background

The Court assumes familiarity with the Sanctions Decision and the overall history of this litigation. In brief, Doe's Complaint claimed false arrest, malicious prosecution, defamation and slander, battery, and negligence. Dkt. 1. She alleged that she had been wrongly accused of being intoxicated before attempting to board a Delta flight, falsely arrested, and incarcerated for about eight hours before being released.

In discovery, Delta sought various of Doe's medical and pharmaceutical records and executed releases from Doe that would permit it to receive such records from Doe's medical providers. Doe did not produce the requested records and releases. The Court issued a series of six orders, directing Doe to produce these documents. Doe ultimately produced the requested records and releases only after the Court had convened an in-person conference - at which Doe's counsel admitted that there was no valid basis justifying Doe's non-compliance with these orders - and issued its sixth order directing Doe to comply.

On July 22, 2015, Delta moved for sanctions based on Doe's repeated failure to comply with the Court's orders, arguing that Doe's conduct was willful and in bad faith. Dkt. 55, 57. In the Sanctions Decision, the Court, applying Rule 37(b)(2)(C), held that monetary sanctions were merited for Doe's "stark, persistent, and unjustified disobedience." Doe, 2015 WL 798031, at *7. The Court ordered Doe to pay Delta all documented and reasonable fees and costs that Delta incurred in the course of obtaining Doe's medical records and releases, between the point when Doe initially failed to comply with Delta's discovery demands (June 9, 2014) and the point when Doe fully complied. Id. at *12. The Court held that the compensable fees and costs were not to include those attributable to other work or projects on the case, or that would have been incurred even if Doe had promptly complied with the June 9, 2014 order. Id. The Court directed Delta to file an affidavit setting forth the basis for its request for attorneys' fees and costs, with supporting documentation; Doe was directed to respond with "particularized attention to specific fee or cost-line items." Id.

On March 12, 2015, Delta filed an affirmation setting out its attorneys' fees and costs, along with supporting documentation. Dkt. 87 ("Martinez Aff."). On March 18, 2015, Doe submitted a brief in opposition to Delta's application. Dkt. 90 ("Pl. Br."). On March 23, 2015, Delta submitted a reply affirmation. Dkt. 93 ("Martinez Reply Aff.").

II. Discussion

Delta seeks $16, 905.38 for the work of the law firm of Martinez & Ritorto, P.C., which represents Delta in this action. This is comprised of $16, 748 in attorneys' fees and $157.38 in costs. Doe does not challenge the hourly rates claimed by Delta's counsel, but she argues that the amount of billable hours for which she is being asked to pay is excessive.

The Court first reviews the standards governing awards of attorneys' fees, and then addresses Doe's arguments opposing Delta's fee application.

A. Applicable Legal Standards Governing Attorneys' Fees

In determining the amount of a fee award, district courts are to calculate the "presumptively reasonable fee." Simmons v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 575 F.3d 170, 172 (2d Cir. 2009). "The starting point for determining the presumptive reasonable fee is the lodestar amount, which is the product of a reasonable hourly rate and the reasonable number of hours required by the case." Charles v. City of New York, No. 13 Civ. 3547 (PAE), 2014 WL 4384155, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 4, 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "The presumptively reasonable fee boils down to what a reasonable, paying client would be willing to pay, ' given that such a party wishes to spend the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively.'" Simmons, 575 F.3d at 174 (quoting Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Ass'n v. County of Albany, 493 F.3d 110, 112, 118 (2d Cir. 2007), amended on other grounds by 522 F.3d 182 (2d Cir. 2008)). Courts "should generally use the hourly rates employed in the district in which the reviewing court sits in calculating the presumptively reasonable fee." Arbor Hill, 493 F.3d at 119. "[T]he fee applicant... bear[s] the burden of documenting the hours reasonably spent by counsel, and the reasonableness of the hourly rates claimed." Allende v. Unitech Design, Inc., 783 F.Supp.2d 509, 512 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

B. Hourly Rates

Two attorneys worked on this case for Martinez & Ritorto, P.C. Delta represents that it has paid $250 per hour for partner Louis R. Martinez, Esq., and $190 per hour for associate Michael Maragoudakis, Esq. Martinez Aff. at 4. Delta states that these rates are "in accord with rates of attorneys practicing in this District, with reference to the type and circumstances of the case involved." Id. at 2. Doe does not challenge these rates. The Court, based on recent cases in this District and its knowledge of prevailing rates, agrees that the requested rates are not only reasonable, but materially below the prevailing rates in this District.

"The prevailing market rates for attorneys... in the Southern District of New York for fees incurred on discovery motions range from $450 to $600 [per hour] for partners, [and] $220 to $400 [per hour] for associates." S.E.C. v. Yorkville Advisors, LLC, No. 12 Civ. 7728 (GBD) (HBP), 2015 WL 855796, at *19 (Feb. 27, 2015) (collecting cases); see also Skanga Energy & Marine Ltd. v. Arevenca S.A., No. 11 Civ. 4296 (DLC) (DF), 2014 WL 2624762, at *5-7 (S.D.N.Y. May 19, 2014) (finding reasonable hourly rates of $600 for a partner and $300-$325 for associates for discovery sanctions); Oleg Cassini, Inc. v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., No. 11 Civ. 1237 (LGS) (JCF), 2013 WL 3871394, at *2 (July 26, 2013) (approving rates of $450 per hour for a named partner and $300 per hour for an associate). Here, the rates at issue are materially below the prevailing range of rates approved for partners and associates in this District, in connection with motions for discovery sanctions. The Court therefore approves the rates of $250 per hour for Martinez and $190 per hour for Maragoudakis.

C. Number of Hours

A party is to be compensated only for "hours reasonably expended on the litigation, " not for hours "that are excessive, redundant, or otherwise unnecessary." Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433-34 (1983). "Upon finding that counsel seeks compensation for excessive hours, the court has discretion simply to deduct a reasonable percentage of the number of hours claimed as a practical means of trimming fat from a fee application.'" Rodriguez v. McLoughlin, 84 F.Supp.2d 417, 425 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (quoting Kirsch v. Fleet Street, Ltd., 148 F.3d 149, 173 (2d Cir. 1998)).

Delta seeks to recoup the attorneys' fees it paid for work performed in furtherance of Delta's attempts to obtain the medical records and releases from Doe ("discovery disputes"). These attorneys' hours are reflected on three invoices, which span June 13, 2014 to November 10, 2014. Martinez Aff., Ex. A. Delta represents that during this five-month time-span, Martinez worked 20.1 hours and Maragoudakis worked 61.7 hours on the discovery disputes. Martinez Aff. ΒΆ 7.

1. Block Billing

At the outset, the Court notes that, although defense counsels' bills are generally commendably specific, there are several modest instances of "block billing, " which the Court defines as "grouping multiple tasks into a single billing entry, so as to leave unclear how much time was devoted to each constituent task." Themis Capital v. Democratic Republic of Congo, No. 09 Civ. 1652 (PAE), 2014 WL 4379100, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 4, 2014). For example, on June 18, 2014, Maragoudakis billed three hours in a single time entry for (1) receiving and reviewing Doe's supplemental response to Delta's second request for production and first set of interrogatories; (2) conducting a telephone conference with the Southern District Court Reporters regarding the transcript for an earlier telephone conference with the Court; (3) ordering this transcript; (4) beginning to review the produced documents to determine what requested documents were missing from the production; and (5) beginning to draft a letter to Doe's counsel, requesting, inter alia, production of the correct authorizations. Martinez Aff., Ex. A, at 11.

"[B]lock-billing can make it more difficult to determine reasonableness." Oleg Cassini, 2013 WL 3871394, at *3. But block billing does not automatically preclude recovery for the hours billed. Courts have instead generally made reductions in block-billed hours in situations where there was reason to believe that the hours billed were independently unreasonable, where the block-billing involved aggregating tasks that were not all compensable, or where the number of hours block-billed together was so high as to create an unacceptable risk that the aggregated total exceeded reasonable hours worked on compensable projects. See Adusumelli ...

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